By Nathan White, VBMB Web Minister
“We don’t believe it’s God’s will for these kids to go around and be hungry” says Rev. Jim Ensor, pastor of First Baptist Church of Honaker, as he chokes up a little. “It’s all about the kids.”
Five years ago, Jim approached Honaker’s mayor, C.H. Wallace, with an idea. Jim noticed that the town pool served as a de facto babysitting service for parents, but many of the kids dropped off had no food during the day. Would it be all right if he invited the kids to hear a 2-3 minute devotional and then serve them a slice of pizza and coke? Sure, C.H. said.
Thus, SPLASH Ministries was born.
“I think that just opened some eyes in the community that there was a need, that some of these children are going hungry, not only in the summertime when there is no school in session, but year-round.”
SPLASH stands for “Seeking People, Loving Him, And Serving Him.” The ministry at the pool then grew to providing 5 or 6 sack lunches for the kids. As the school year neared, school officials approached Jim and asked him if there was any way they could keep feeding these kids.
“We prayed about it, sought God’s will about it, and we fed ‘em. And we’ve been feeding them.”
“There are kids that are hungry tonight, not knowing if they’re going to get breakfast in the morning,” he continued. “A lot of children—if they don’t go to school—they don’t eat. That’s what we do.”
SPLASH is run by five area churches. Connections have been made through Baptist Association meetings and other introductions that are common in a small town like Honaker.
Yvonne Dye (pronounced “wye-vonne”), a volunteer from Bethany Baptist Church, explains, “We come from different churches…but we are all God’s people. We all work together, and it’s just a beautiful relationship—a beautiful blessing.”
Who’s in charge?
“There isn’t really an organization here, we don’t have a constitution and bylaws, officers, or anyone really in charge, but it works. It just works to feed the kids. That’s what we’re about,” Jim said.
Once a month, volunteers assemble at First United Methodist Church of Honaker to assemble the food bags and hand them out to the recipients. The ministry no longer gives out individual sack lunches, choosing instead to give out more staple-type foods to families. Flour, sugar, corn meal, beans, pasta, and vegetables all make up the menu.
“If SPLASH finds a deal on it, we’re going to buy it,” Jim said.
THE HEART OF SOUTHWEST VIRGINIA
Honaker is nestled in Russell County, billed as the heart of southwest Virginia. Surrounded by “knobs” and “hollers,” Honaker has just under 1,500 residents. The small town is about an hour north of Bristol, an hour southwest from Bluefield, and over 2 ½ hours from Roanoke.
Known as the Redbud Capital of the World, the town’s annual festivals and Christmas parade draw thousands from across the region.
Industry in town has traditionally centered around logging, farming, and coal mining. The mayor explained that “when things are good, they’re good. And when they’re bad, they’re bad. And that falls down all the way to the children and grandchildren and everyone in the community.”
Honaker has two schools—Honaker Elementary and Honaker High. Sadly, 42% of the town’s children under age 18 live below the poverty line. The median household income for a family hovers around $30,000. Half of all school children in the county qualify for free or reduced lunches, with 600 of them in or around Honaker.
Jim relates reports from the schools that students would wait near tray drop-off points in the cafeteria to grab any leftover food. “That’s not how it’s supposed to be,” said Jim.
Feeding America recently published a “Map the Meal Gap” report highlighting food insecurity across the nation. Food insecurity refers to the circumstance where a person may not always know where his or her next meal will come from.
Among Russell County residents, 13%, or approximately 3,750, are food insecure, a bit above the average of 12.1% for the state of Virginia as a whole. Food insecurity hits children the hardest, with 22.4%, or 1,280, not knowing where their next meal will come from.
Feeding America estimates that 86% of county children are income-eligible for nutrition programs, meaning they come from families with incomes at or below 185% of the poverty level.
Drug use also impacts Honaker. A number of grandparents are raising their grandchildren because their own sons and daughters have been incarcerated. Some are even raising great-grandchildren. Many are on fixed incomes and don’t have much left over to feed extra mouths.
“It’s sad when it happens to a small town like this. It makes a big, big economic difference,” says Cathy Jones, a SPLASH volunteer and recipient.
Yvonne Dye also understands the town’s challenges firsthand. A retired school teacher, she was born and raised in Honaker. She noted that young people have a tough decision after high school. “Many leave and never come back.”
Yvonne says that with SPLASH, she was initially a doubting Thomas. After Jim realized that the kids needed food during the school year in addition to summer, he approached her with the idea of feeding kids and families throughout the entire year.
Their starting budget was a little over $200. “There is no way we can do it,” Yvonne told Jim. He retorted, “If the Lord wants it done, we can do it.”
Yvonne and another volunteer, Carolyn Puckett, headed off to Sam’s Club to buy the food. While standing in line, a lady behind them asked why they were buying so much food. They told her, and the lady reached in her pocketbook, pulled out a $10 bill, and said, “I want to help.” The total came to $207.11, and the women cheered that they came in just under budget. Yvonne thought, “Okay, God meant for this to happen.”Watch a 2 minute video of Yvonne talking about the blessings that have come out of SPLASH:
Since then, money has come in from many places. When asked where the money comes from, Jim laughs and quickly answers “Everywhere.” Last year they bought approximately $48,000 worth of food, thanks to all the monetary donations.
Jim said he’s had people walk up to him with checks for $6,000. Another man in the community sold his business and wrote them a check for $62,000. He recalled that a little tiny church just outside of town sends $250 a month towards SPLASH. “I’m not sure how, but they do.” Other folks walk up to him when he’s out and about town with a $50 bill for SPLASH.
Local businesses also find ways to contribute. Many businesses in town have collection jugs near the register for SPLASH. The jugs say “Help SPLASH Ministries feed the kids with your change.”
Businesses will also sponsor prizes for recreational events SPLASH occasionally holds for the kids. The other week they held a community Easter Egg Hunt that brought out hundreds of kids.
“A SERIES OF MISTAKES”
Sometimes help has come from very unexpected places. Jim relates a story of how God used several mistakes to provide for the ministry. He is a Board Member of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. After a Board meeting, he received his travel reimbursement check and placed it in his shirt pocket. “I never put checks there—that was my first mistake.”
The check got washed. After retrieving it, he forgot to call the Mission Board for a new check. Some weeks later he was sitting with his wife, Judy, at the doctor’s office when he suddenly remembered he needed to call the Mission Board. He called right from the lobby on his cell phone.
“I asked for Marilee White, but she wasn’t there.” He then reached someone in the business office and had to explain who he was and what had happened. After a joke about not condoning money laundering, he was assured that a new check would be sent right out.
“If I had gotten Marilee, she would’ve known who I was, and I wouldn’t have had to explain myself.”
After the conclusion of the phone call, a gentleman came over and asked what sort of mission work he was involved in. “It doesn’t take much to get me talking about SPLASH.”
The man handed him the business card of another gentleman from a food distribution organization in Bristol that he said might be able to help. Once the appointment was over, Jim and Judy drove down to the address and introduced themselves to the man.
The man looked at him for a minute, shook his head, and told Jim that they hadn’t had an opening in over a year and a half, yet just the day before a church had dropped out. Would they like their spot?
Jim just shakes his head at the series of mistakes and events that led him to this opportunity. SPLASH now receives over 1,000 pounds of food from the organization in Bristol each month.
“That’s a God thing,” Jim admitted. He then quoted 1 John 5:14: “This is the confidence that we have before Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.”Watch a 3.5 minute video of Jim telling the story of “A Series of Mistakes”:
“YOU CAN’T OUT-GIVE THE LORD”
While counting their many blessings thus far, volunteers are praying for their own building to house and distribute the food.
“You always look for that bigger picture. I really believe that someday God will lead us [in that direction],” said Cathy Jones.
Because the weather this winter has been so bad, the distribution schedule was temporarily changed. They recently purchased a new calling system that allows them to record a message and notify all recipients of the next distribution date. So far feedback has been positive.
Having shifted from weekly to monthly distribution, Jim admits that they have only scratched the surface. “There are a lot of proud people in this area. If it weren’t for that, I’m sure we would be feeding more people than we are.”
Michael Weir is a recipient of the program. His daughter, Bethany, is 13 years old. Michael beams with pride when he says that she is a brown belt in karate.
“SPLASH has come through for us where the government couldn’t, especially with the price of gas and electric bills that have gone up so much.”
Cathy Jones began volunteering with SPLASH a little over a year ago. As the other helpers got to know her, they learned she was raising a granddaughter after her son was incarcerated for drug abuse. They encouraged Cathy to also receive some food.
A member of Bethany Baptist Church, she said that “at first I felt guilty, there has to be people out there that are worse-off than I am.” She had a change of heart, however, as she realized that accepting the donations from SPLASH released money to help out with paying bills and meeting the needs of her granddaughter.
Regarding her work with SPLASH, she stated, “It’s a blessing. I have enjoyed every minute of it. I don’t begrudge the hard work—sometimes it is very hard work loading and unloading the groceries and getting the bags ready.”
Cathy continued, saying, “God is a giving God. This is what we’re about—giving….You can’t out-give the Lord.”
“THERE ARE HUNGRY KIDS EVERYWHERE”
According to Feeding America, there are nearly 300,000 children in Virginia that are food insecure. “This is the richest country in the world, and we have kids who are hungry. That ain’t right,” Jim says.
Jim challenges that we all have to get past the question of why these kids are hungry. “‘Their daddy won’t work.’ I don’t care. It doesn’t make any difference whether that daddy won’t work or can’t work for some reason. It doesn’t make that child any less hungry. It doesn’t make that kid any less cold if he needs a coat.”
For churches that are considering this type of ministry, Jim challenges them to look at what God was doing. “There are hungry kids everywhere.” He went on to say, “You just gotta look at what God’s doing and get involved in what God’s doing.”
“I believe in my heart God doesn’t want these kids running around hungry. If I believe that, I believe He’s going to provide what we need. And He has so far.”